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What is Process Capability?

Quality Glossary Definition: Process Capability

Process capability is defined as a statistical measure of the inherent process variability of a given characteristic. You can use a process-capability study to assess the ability of a process to meet specifications.

During a quality improvement initiative, such as Six Sigma, a capability estimate is typically obtained at the start and end of the study to reflect the level of improvement that occurred.

Several capability estimates are in widespread use, including:

  • Potential capability (Cp) and actual capability during production (Cpk) are process capability estimates. Cp and Cpk show how capable a process is of meeting its specification limits, used with continuous data. They are valuable tools for evaluating initial and ongoing capability of parts and processes.
  • “Sigma” is a capability estimate typically used with attribute data (i.e., with defect rates).

Capability estimates like these essentially reflect the nonconformance rate of a process by expressing this performance in the form of a single number. Typically this involves calculating some ratio of the specification limits to process spread.

Practical Concerns when Conducting Capability Studies

There are both positive and negative aspects to capability estimates. For example, Cp and Cpk estimates are highly sensitive to the assumption that one is sampling from a normal distribution—that is, most of the data points are concentrated around the average (mean), forming a bell–shaped curve.

Furthermore, sampling from a stable system is essential to obtaining meaningful estimates of process performance for future production.

Many quality practitioners report solely the numerical values of the capability estimates. Others, however, note that the capability estimates are themselves merely statistics, or point estimates of the true capability of a process. As such, the use of confidence intervals for the true capability values may also be reported.

When sampling from stable, but non-normal distributions, other strategies to obtain meaningful capability estimates may be appropriate, including:

  • Transforming the data to be approximately well modeled by a Normal distribution.
  • Using an alternative probability distribution, such as Weibull or lognormal distributions.

Process Capability Articles

Quality Improvement Under Budgetary and Life-Cycle Constraints (PDF) Cost is a major driver in many, if not all, of the decisions that a firm must make. How much should be spent on process improvement with respect to improvement in process capability?

My Supplier's Capability Is What? (PDF) Know what processes your suppliers are using, and make them prove those processes are capable and controlled.

One Good Idea: Process Capability—Understanding the Concept Help employees grasp the basics of process potential and performance.

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